John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most prolific and influential commentators on Italian art and cultural history in nineteenth-century Britain. Like so many of his contemporaries, he wrote about Italy past and present partly as a way of imaginatively accessing and critiquing contemporary social and cultural issues in Britain. Nevertheless, he was passionately devoted to Italy, to understanding and interpreting its art, and to preserving its fading beauty, and his insightful and compelling, if sometimes eccentric, writings fundamentally affected the ways in which it was, and still is, viewed by Anglo-American visitors. As Henry James was to say in 1909 in his own Italian Hours, in which he engages with Ruskin at every turn, ‘it is Mr. Ruskin who beyond any one helps us to enjoy’. 1 A firm believer that ‘the art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues […] The art, or general productive and formative energy, of any country, is an exact exponent of its ethical life’, 2 Ruskin analysed the cultural life of medieval, Renaissance, and modern Italy in a way that emphasized the social and political embeddedness of art, and foregrounded questions of historical process. Italy represented for Ruskin, as for so many Victorians, a site of historical accumulation rather than erasure and renewal; a place sofreighted with history, so self-evidently the repository of its rich and chequered past, that it triggered his most profound reflections on human historicity. Italy’s past had many aspects and many uses: at its most glorious it was touchstone and inspiration; at its most depraved, a prophetic warning to the degenerate modern world of the fate that awaited it. It spoke to him of historical difference, but also of historical and cultural continuity. The past that Ruskin encounters in Italy ranges from the recent remembered past of his own first visits, to the medieval and 88Renaissance past whose fragile monuments are subject to a measurable process of inexorable decay, to the distant geological past which increasingly urges itself upon his attention.